A portentous voice-over from star Tom Cruise delivers an exposition-heavy introduction to the earth in ruins after a devastating war. The world’s remaining natural resources are being farmed to equip remaining human with the means of survival up in the stars. Stationed on a floating outpost way up in the clouds, Jack Harper (Cruise) is a maintenance man of sorts, tasked with repairing monitoring drones and protecting them from earthbound marauders.
He and his colleague (Andrea Riseborough) are close to completing their mission, but Harper is reluctant to leave as he still feels a great affinity towards the place, even though his memory has been scrubbed, pre-mission, as a precautionary measure. Rescuing the sole survivor of a crashed spaceship (Olga Kurylenko) Harper is captured by a ragtag bunch of insurgents (led by Morgan Freeman) who offer him the devastating truth behind the planet’s condition.
Ostensibly, Oblivion would appear to stand out from the usual glut of sequels and comic book adaptations being readied for release as an original property (it comes from director Joseph Kosinski’s unproduced graphic novel) but in reality the results are anything but unique, and the film is a highly derivative affair. It’s a composite of dozens of previous works of sci-fi on screen, some inferior, most of them superior. Expect a geek homage-o-meter to crop up online any day soon. That stitched together approach is thematic, although many visual nods creep in over time, none more so obvious than a huge-scale reconfiguration of 2001’s HAL, which unintentionally acts as a fitting reminder that this film can’t match anywhere close to the cerebral musings or emotional weight of that 1968 feature.
As always, Cruise shows an unwavering dedication to the role, but the material does little to test his solid abilities as an actor. His young British co-star Riseborough fairs much better, although she’s a little restricted and mostly confined to airborne support. Morgan Freeman crops up doing his usual shtick, but Melissa Leo is fun back at mission control, channelling a chirpy, ‘gee-whiz’ attitude which has a malevolence bubbling underneath.
For all its issues, Oblivion is far from an unmitigated disaster. The world Kosinski has created is at times jaw-dropping, and is both enjoyably sleek and inviting – particularly his fetishised approach to futuristic machinery and highly stylised architectural spaces. Earth resembles the end of Planet of the Apes but on a bigger and more striking scale, with its blanketed ashen and decaying landscape. It’s a shame the lack of originality finally becomes a distraction forty or so minutes in, as the story begins to tail off and that grandiose spectacle which has been carefully and painstakingly crafted simply isn’t enough to stem the overriding sense of déjà vu.